MIAMI – About 45 feet beneath the ocean's surface lies a cemetery with gates, pathways, plaques and even benches.
The Neptune Memorial Reef, which opened last fall, is seen by its creators as a perfect final resting spot for those who loved the sea. They hope that one day the reef will cover 16 acres and have room for 125,000 remains.
"This is simply as good as it gets," said Gary Levine, a diver who conceived the reef and is now a shareholder in the company that owns it.
The Neptune Memorial Reef is in open waters 3 1/4 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, which means any certified diver can visit. The artificial reef's first phase allows for about 850 remains.
The ashes are mixed with cement designed for underwater use and fitted into a mold, which a diver then places and secures into the reef. A copper and bronze plaque is installed with the person's name, date of birth and death. There is also a line for a message.
Jim Hutslar, who manages the construction and deployment of the placements, said he wears sunglasses when he mixes the remains with cement to hide his emotions, especially when the family of the deceased is present.
"I intentionally try to think about the person," Hutslar said. "I am pretty sentimental anyway."
In one instance, a mother wanted to mix the cement and ashes of her son. She also left the imprints of her fingerprints and put a note into it.
"It's sad to see someone die, but this is almost a celebration of life," said artist Kim Brandell, who created the reef's design. "We call it 'life after life."'
In March, the remains of 93-year-old diver Bert Kilbride — who called himself "The Last Pirate of the Caribbean" — were placed atop a column of the reef's main gate, because of his contributions to the sea. Kilbride was named the oldest living scuba diver in this year's Guinness Book of World Records.
"I think he would feel very honored," his son Gary Kilbride said. "This is somebody who has been connected to the sea his whole life."
Originally, the reef was named after the so-called lost city of Atlantis, but it changed after its owners Afterlife Services Inc. partnered with BG Capital in 2007 to form the company, said Jerry Norman, president of the Neptune Society, which is marketing the reef. The company specializes in cremation services across 11 states.
Brandell said he was given no parameters in the reef's designs, which grew as they waited three years for permits.
"It just kept getting larger. When we went to get permitting, it took so long. During that time I kept developing the ideas," Brandell said.
The structures are 90 percent cement. Some of the sculptural elements are in bronze and steel. It is the same pH balance as the sea, he said.
"I designed it to be a divers' location. I am hoping and planning it be to the most dived location on the planet," Brandell said. "I didn't want it to look like Roman or Greek architecture. I wanted it to be contemporary or modern in design."
As a diver swims down the pathways of the reef there will be themed areas, like dancing or sports.
"If it's music I might have concrete or metal musical instruments," Brandell said. "Nothing is going to be in words to describe these features — it will be sculptural elements."
Location and temperature made it an easy-to-make reef, Norman said.
"It's very conducive to marine habitat growth. You've got marine organisms, light and water," he said. "It's an easy dive for beginners and well as (the) experienced."
The cost of a placement starts at $995 and can go to $6,495, for those who want to be placed inside the base of a lion statue for all eternity.
Hutslar said the reef is designed to last forever and engineered to withstand the harshest hurricane that has hit Florida in the last 100 years.
Stephen Blair, chief of the restoration and enhancement section of Miami-Dade County's department of Environmental Resources Management, which has oversight of the reef, said it will become a tourist attraction.
"I think the combination of the structure, the dive-site aspect as well as how it's being used, makes it a unique site," Blair said.
Keith Mille, an environmental specialist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, said another method of burying ashes inside reef balls creates a habitat for fish and corals to attach. But he was impressed with the engineering concepts for this reef and the environment that it creates for divers.
Dive companies on the reef's Web site said people have been calling with interest in diving it.
"I am sure once it's completed ... it's going to be spectacular. It's definitely a beautiful site," said Alex Nunez, an instructor at South Beach Divers.